Know Thy Enemy: Colorado Avalanche

Before we begin the preview for today, I'd like to take a quick moment to remember all those who lost their lives 10 years ago. Never forget.

It's football day around this great nation of yours (the CFL plays their big games on Friday night, further proof it's as important as US high school football), and the NFL is full of historic rivalries. Bears vs Packers; Colts vs Patriots; Cowboys vs 49ers; and Lions vs success. However, none of them match the true intensity and pure hatred that existed between the Colorado Avalanche and the Red Wings from 1996 to 2002.

However, since meeting in the Western Conference Finals in 2002, the two franchises have been on different paths, and while the Wings were able to sustain their success after the lockout, the Avs struggled to maintain their position among the league's elite, falling further and further out of relevancy. While this tickles me in a special place, it's caused the rivalry (at least on the ice) to pretty much disappear.

Sure, we've enjoyed seeing the Wings win the last 5 playoff meetings by a combined score of 28-9; we've relished seeing the Avs miss the playoffs completely in 2 of the last 3 seasons; and I'll take any reason I can think of to link to this. However, the Avs made a few moves that they think will make them better, and their fans would love nothing more than to see them succeed at the expense of the Wings.

Since that won't happen this year, let's go ahead and see why. Follow the jump as we look at the Avalanche.

The Avs started the season well, staying in the playoff race for the first half of the season. In the West, that also meant that they still had a shot at a top seed in the conference. However, after the All-Star break the wheels fell off, and the Avs plummeted to the conference basement (thankfully Edmonton broke their fall). The Avs finished 5-25-2 in their final 32 games, and only one of those wins was in regulation. Just after Christmas, future Hall-of-Famer Chris Osgood recorded his 400th career win against the Avs, securing his spot in Toronto. To make matters worse, Greg Sherman lost Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk in a poker game to St. Louis (since he never would have traded those players away voluntarily), but was able to win back Erik Johnson and Jay McClement in the side game he was part of after he was eliminated in the main tournament. Perhaps the cruelest blow to the Avs was when Peter Forsberg announced he was making a comeback, but had to retire before playing a single shift, wasting one of the Avs' few sellouts last year. It was a disappointing end to a season that started with promise.

Arrivals: Semyon Varlamov, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Chuck Kobasew, Jan Hejda, Shane O'Brien
Departures: John-Michael Liles, Adam Foote, Brian Elliott, Peter Budaj, Tomas Fleischmann

Pertinent Stats in 2010-11
Points:
68 (29th NHL, 14th West)
Goals For: 221 (18th NHL)
Goals Against: 287 (30th NHL)
Power Play: 18.5% (11th NHL)
Penalty Kill: 76.1% (30th NHL)

Offense: The Avs boast some solid offensive performers, but there are very few explosive players left on the team. Matt Duchene (who played for his junior hockey for my hometown Brampton Battalion) is the offensive leader of the team. He's a slick center who has great hands, is extremely fast, and is learning how to be a star very quickly. He was named to his first All-Star game this past season, very deserved in this writer's opinion. He could easily become a PPG player this season, and has a very bright future. He's complemented by Paul Statsny, son of Peter, and the other offensive center on the Avs. Statsny has been a good-but-not-great guy through his first 5 seasons, displaying a complete lack of consistency. He's more a playmaker than a goals-scorer, but he's scored 20 goals 4 times, and is an important part of the offense.

Milan Hejduk is back yet again, and Colorado's Mr Consistency will be looking to score 20 goals for the 11th consecutive season, a remarkable feat for one of the NHL's more underrated players. David Jones took a major step forward as an offensive threat, posting career highs in goals, assists and points as he played his first full season for the Avs.

What really has Avs fans all a-flutter (besides thin air) is their stud prospect Gabriel Landeskong, the #2 overall pick in last year's draft. He's a big Swedish forward who played his junior hockey with Jeff Skinner in the OHL, and there are many who are already projecting him as an early favourite for the Calder Trophy if he plays well in training camp and secures a spot on the team. On a very young roster, having Landeskong soak in experience and start his career now makes sense. If he develops into what he's supposed to be (a stud winger who can score a ton of goals), he and Duchene or Statsny could develop into a very potent 1-2 punch along the lines of the Sedins or Perry/Getzlaf, meaning that Wing fans could have a new pair to hate for years to come.

Defense: When you finish last overall in total defense in the NHL, and your captain and defensive leader retires, what's the smart thing to do? Sign a depth defenseman from Columbus? If that's your answer, then you're as smart as Sherman.

The Avs' defense, if I may be diplomatic, is terrible. Adam Foote, their leader and best defensive defenseman, called it a career, and their best offensive defenseman (Liles) was traded to the the Maple Leafs. But, the good news for Avs fans is that they have a former #1 overall pick who couldn't live up to the hype or expectations in St. Louis, so you know he'll be awesome in Colorado, right? Erik Johnson actually played well in his brief stint with the Avs after the trade, and I believe that escaping the team that drafted him first overall will allow him to relax and start to become the player that many thought he would be when he was taken by the Blues.

The Avs' defense does not contain any stars, and outside of Kyle Quincey, there may not be many names that Wing fans recognize. Colorado definitely tried to get tougher on defense, signing O'Brien and Hejda to contracts after luring them away from Nashville and Columbus, respectively. Both are short on offense and big on physicality, and they should make the Avs a tougher team to play against. Ryan O'Byrne is another tough defenseman who is extremely limited offensively, so Avs fans shouldn't expect too much in the way of scoring from the blueline this season.

Goaltending: After Craig Anderson did what many thought was impossible and carried the Avs to the playoffs in 2009-10, many thought that he'd be able to duplicate his efforts and once again give the Avalanche quality play in goal. He had other ideas, however, and in February he was traded to Ottawa for Brian Elliott. The move didn't exactly pay off, as Elliott is terrible, so Colorado did what any smart team would do: trade away a potential lottery pick for a goalie that couldn't beat out Michael Neuvirth for a starting job behind a stacked Capitals team.

Varlamov has the potential to be a very good goalie, but he played behind a team that had a ton of offensive superstars, so the jury is still out on whether he can backstop a team to success without having a lot of support. He's going to see more traffic and shots than he was used to in Washington. I think he'll make the Avs better, but he's not the answer to their struggles.

Backing up Varlamov will be Giguere, and since I still can't get his performance in the first round of the 2003 playoffs out of my head, I will just say that I will never forgive him for what he did do the Wings that year, even if it was probably the greatest goaltending performance in a single playoff series I've ever seen.

Player to Watch: While I am contractually obligated as a Wing fan to despise all Avalanche players, I always respected and liked Joe Sakic. He played the game the right way, and he was impossible to hate, even during the games. In many respects, he was the same as Steve Yzerman. Once Sakic retired, I thought that I could go back to hating everyone on Colorado, but I just can't help but enjoy watching Matt Duchene. That he played for my hometown junior team doesn't hurt, but he's a kid who has a ton of talent, is exciting to watch, and seems to be having genuine fun out there. This could be the year that Duchene shows that he's one of the new superstars of the game, and if I were an Avs fan, I'd be very excited for the future with this kid.

Player With Something to Prove: The smart money here is on Varlamov. He cost the Avs a first round pick in the 2012 draft, as well as a 2nd round pick in either 2012 or 2013. The expectations for the Avs as a team are very low, so that pick could turn into a top prospect for the Capitals. Varlamov had a lot of expectations when he joined the Caps in 2008-09, and he played extremely well in his split time with Theodore, especially in the playoffs. He battled injuries in 2009-10, and last year lost his job to Neuvirth. He's got a ton of upside and potential, but it's hard to know how truly good he is now that he's playing behind a team without a lot of defensive talent.

The Skinny: We make fun of the Avs a lot around here (as Avs fans do to us), but in all seriousness, this is still a team that is years away from contending. Varlamov gives them some stability in goal, and the signings of Hejda and O'Brien provide them with some defensive depth. But there are still a lot of question marks surrounding this team, especially with the forward corps once one looks past the trio of Duchene, Statsny and Hejduk. While the forwards could have excellent years, not many of them have proven that they can be consistent offensive contributors. I think the Avs are going to struggle for the most part this year, although they will be an exciting team to watch. However, the future in Colorado is very bright, so this could be the start of their return to the status as a contender.

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